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Counties miss deadline to send ballots to overseas, military voters

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Elections officials throughout California missed a deadline to send 8,250 ballots to overseas and military voters for next week’s presidential primary, prompting a lawsuit and swift settlement over the weekend between the state officials and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Eleven of the state’s 58 counties violated the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act by failing to send ballots to voters abroad on April 21 – 45 days before the primary. While about 5,450 of the late ballots were sent out within two days of missing the deadline, some were delayed as much as a week. 

On Saturday, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit [PDF] against California for missing the deadline, but Secretary of State Debra Bowen reached an agreement on the matter that same day, federal officials said. As part of the settlement, the secretary of state's office will hold training sessions with at least one election official in each county before the general election in November.

David Tom, elections manager for San Mateo County, said his county was on schedule to send ballots to the 739 overseas voters who requested their ballots through the mail. But at the last minute, a county Board of Supervisors candidate had to be removed from the ballot.

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“Every ballot had to be reprinted,” Tom said. “That may have caused us to miss the deadline date.”

San Mateo County has 2,266 overseas voters in the military, Tom said. The majority of them requested their ballot electronically, but the county was six days late in physically mailing the rest of the ballots. 

“It was not something that we did intend,” Tom said.

The San Mateo County elections office was aware that it missed the deadline and made sure to send the remaining ballots to their destinations via express mail, Tom said. County elections officials will be contacting overseas voters who have not yet returned their ballots to offer them the option to return the ballot by express mail at no cost, he added.

“We’ll certainly be much more conscious in ensuring that nothing gets in the way of meeting the deadline,” Tom said. “It’s going to be on our radar even more so than it is today."

This is the first primary election in which states have had to comply with new regulations under the 2009 Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, said Benjamin Wagner, the U.S. attorney representing California’s Eastern District.

Under the new law, states have to send ballots to overseas voters 45 days before federal elections and allow the voter to choose how he or she wants to receive the ballot – either electronically or through the mail, Wagner said.

“Nobody is intending to disenfranchise the military,” he said. “Each of them (the counties) have their own elections officials and registrars of voters, and they’re all trying to comply with new regulations. What this enforcement action is intended to do is put some teeth behind that statute.”

California is not the only state that has struggled to get ballots to every overseas voter on time, Wagner said. 

“It’s been happening in other states on kind of a rolling basis as we get close to those states' primaries,” he said. “It was not quite as cooperative of a process as it has been here in California.”

The lawsuit’s less-than-24-hour turnaround indicates the Justice Department already had been working with the secretary of state to resolve the problem, Wagner said. A total of 19 counties violated the law by delaying ballots or failing to provide the voter with an option – or both, Wagner said.

“There’s a sufficiently widespread problem with compliance in California that we thought it was important to bring some enforcement action,” he said. “The parties have reached an agreement on what is the proper outcome of the case.”

Secretary of State Bowen gave counties “repeated reminders” of the April 21 deadline, according to a press release from her office. Contra Costa, Fresno, Modoc, San Diego, San Francisco, San Mateo, Shasta, Sierra, Tehama, Trinity and Ventura counties still missed the date.

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